When the news came last week that former city councilor, state senator and political powerhouse Jean Chalmers died at age 88, you had to think about how well she would have meshed with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Both took great pride in driving Republicans crazy and earned their eternal hatred.
Don’t ever tell a woman she can’t do anything, both would agree.
The University of Georgia tried that with Chalmers in 1961 when they turned down her law school application. She told me many years ago, “I was a Yankee, a Democrat, a liberal and a woman, and they wanted no part of me,” she said. Her thirst for the law was kindled when Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver tried to close all state schools to avoid integration. “If you want to change the law, you better study the law,” she said.
Chalmers, a Midwest native who had already graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, took some honors classes at Georgia and “aced them all.” After a trip to Italy, she reapplied to the law school in 1965 and graduated in 1968. She was one of only two women to graduate from the law school. She did so well that the school wanted her to come back and teach labor law, she said.
She came to Rockland in 1972 and became the first woman practicing law in the county, she was told. A committed activist, Chalmers volunteered for the city charter commission, and then ran for the city council. I attended a few of those charter meetings and nothing could be duller. But she persevered.
By 1981, Democrats were proliferating in Knox County after generations of Republican rule. Chalmers, a Democrat, a woman and a person “from away,” was somehow elected to the city council and served three terms. In the long, tedious meetings, Chalmers decided to start knitting, driving Mayor Tom Molloy up the council walls. Again she prevailed.
“Tommy didn’t think a woman could knit and think at the same time. Any woman can tell you that they think much better when they are knitting,” she recalled when looking back in 2006 as she prepared to leave Rockland for Hanover, New Hampshire, so she could spend time with her children.
In 1984, veteran Republican state Sen. Sam Collins decided to step down and, just before the election, anointed Camden’s “Rusty” Brace as his successor. “Rusty wanted to be governor, but he thought he might serve a term in the Senate first,” Chalmers recalled. Even Republicans were irate about the Collins-Brace ploy at the midnight hour. Naturally, everyone told Chalmers that she could not possibly win in the rock-ribbed Republican district. But riding Republican resentment, she became the first woman to ever represent Knox County in the Legislature. She loved it.
“I had so much fun working for gay rights, civil rights and abortion rights. The Republicans were always mad at me,” she said.
The fun lasted only a single term when Democrat Clayton Fowlie ran as an independent, drew party votes from Chalmers, and gave Republican Linda Brawn the victory. I remember Chalmers leaving the Rockland polls that night, in tears. “What did I do wrong?” she asked me.
Of course, she was far from done. She returned to the council, where she was elected mayor and fought Rockland’s law that banned dogs from walking on Main Street. She was “arrested” by Police Chief Alfred Ockenfels for walking her dog Millie on Main Street and brought to court twice. She saw both cases dismissed and eventually the” dog law” was removed from the books.
Even when she left the council, she volunteered to operate the cameras at the council meetings. Television opened up the monthly proceedings. “People started watching the meetings then. They still do,” she said a decade ago.
And at every stop along the way, she took great pride in infuriating Republicans. “It was second nature,” she told me.
She left behind quite a history. She was honored by the Maine Bar Association with the Dana Award in 1989 for humanitarian work as a lawyer. The governor designated Jan. 13, 2007, as Jean Chalmers Day in gratitude for the legacy of service to her adopted community.
According to her obituary, a memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Adas Yoshuron Synagogue, 50 Willow St., Rockland. Contributions may be made in her honor to ParentWorks, c/o Home Counselors Inc., 375 Main St., Rockland, Maine 04841
Emmet Meara lives in Camden in blissful retirement after working as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Rockland for 30 years.